PLAYBILL PICKS: Tennessee Williams' Five Most Memorable Divas, Including Maggie the Cat

By Robert Simonson
13 Jan 2013

Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie on Broadway in 1974.

Margaret "Maggie the Cat" Pollitt, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

At first glance, the fiery Maggie would seem the strongest of all Williams heroines. She speaks her mind to her unresponsive husband Brick, tells off her hated in-laws, and twists her powerful father-in-law, Big Daddy, around her pretty finger. Moreover, she's in full knowledge and command of her ripe sexuality. Yet, in truth, Maggie controls nothing around her. She's losing her inheritance to her fertile sister-in-law, can't get her alcoholic spouse to sleep with her, and thus can't produce an offspring that would impress Big Daddy. More than Blanche and Amanda, success is within her reach. But her life is nonetheless pure frustration.

Elizabeth Ashley was the most famous Maggie of her generation — she played the role on Broadway to acclaim in 1974 — and knew where the character was coming from. "I had the advantage of growing up in a life pretty much exactly like Maggie's," she said. "I grew up speaking the language and experiencing that particular class system." Knowing the sound of Maggie, said Ashley, is critical to playing the part. "It's not just 'Southern.' More often than not, actors who don't have a Southern background or an extraordinary ear, deliver that all-too-common grotesque caricature or a Southern drawl. [Maggie's accent] is a sexual Gulf Coast cry/growl/moan."

She continued, "Tennessee's language is as exacting as Shakespeare's. It's onomatopoeic — it's meaning is in its rhythms, its sounds, its silences, its 'time.' Sometimes he writes in a syncopated jazz time and — quite often — the big soliloquies and monologues are written in waltz time."

Anika Noni Rose in the 2008 Broadway revival of Cat.
photo by Joan Marcus

Ashley thinks that — as with Shakespeare's Juliet — by the time actresses are mentally mature enough to tackle Maggie, they are too old for the part. "Maggie the Cat is very complicated," observed Ivey. "A lot of times I think she's played too young." Like other Williams characters, she's "complicated and complex because they have many faces. They have a face for the public, their private face, even the face nobody sees. I think Brick is unaware of Maggie's deep fear of being poor."

"No matter how much of an extremist she is, no matter how scheming she is, she's another butterfly that's made of iron inside," said Mann, who directed Jobeth Williams in Cat at the McCarter in 1992. "That's true of all Williams' characters — they're driven by sexuality, whether they know it or not."

Ashley argued that you can't be Maggie without balancing the plaintively vulnerable, acerbically funny and bitingly determined aspects of her personality. "At her best, Maggie is outrageously funny as Richard Pryor in his prime," she said, "and as heartbreaking as Blanche DuBois being led to her final tragic fate. [She's] as fast as Secretariat and as still as stone; she is cruel and kind and wise and manipulative and touch and fragile and frightened and blinded to everything but her war for survival. She will fight to the death for life."

Read about the original 1955 Broadway production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof in the Playbill Vault, the most comprehensive Broadway database on the internet.